Back in July, a number of indie publishers publicly called out Sony for its apparent ongoing dismissal of the immense challenges facing small developers trying to publish games on PlayStation. While publicly Sony offered no official comment on these complaints at the time, it appears that the company was quietly listening after all — and has recently begun to take some action.
Looking back at our conversations with these publishers at the time, a number of key issues were brought to light. Sony, indie publishers and developers said, had overly complex tools and forms, unclear processes, and poor communication with its indie partners when it came to getting answers, guidance, or issues resolved. They also expressed that while discoverability was an industry-wide issue, Sony was at best indifferent or at worst actively adversarial to these struggles, making PlayStation a very challenging platform for indie game sales.
What’s more, it sounds like the vocal indies who spoke up in July were not alone in feeling this way. IGN has obtained a copy of a document entitled “2021 Global Partner Survey Results,” which was sent out to a number of Sony’s partner publishers and developers as a follow-up to a survey that was conducted sometime prior. The findings document is short — only three pages long — and does not specifically mention the public complaints from this past summer. But it does identify three target areas for “continued improvement” based on the results of the survey, all of which directly correspond to issues the indie publishers brought up on social media and in articles.
First, there’s “reducing complexity,” with Sony pledging, among other things, to improve communication channels, clarify who publishers should be taking concerns to, and make sure it’s giving enough detail about its operations to its partners so they can make decisions. Second, Sony promised to give all its active publishing and developing partners access to better game sales, engagement, and promotion analytics, as well as improve discoverability. And finally, Sony says it will modernize its toolset and improve its ticketing systems, documentation, and customer service efforts for partner issues.
After viewing this document, IGN followed up with a number of the indies we spoke with over the summer. Based on their responses, it appears that Sony is already taking some actions to improve its communication and partnerships with its smaller publishing partners. Akupara Games CEO David Logan says that both Akupara’s account manager and head of PlayStation creators Greg Rice reached out to his company personally following the publication of our original article.
“They were obviously crushed at the news, and it was clear that the account managers at Sony had been working hard for a long time to push through a lot of the ideas the indie developers flagged in our initial discussions,” he says. “After the articles, that seemed to give a huge boost to initiatives they had already been planning, because rapidly after Sony started rolling out a bunch of big changes.”
What were those big changes? Logan, who says he’s “always had a solid communication frequency” with Akupara’s account manager, tells me that his issues with Sony support response times have drastically improved, for one. While previously he had complained of having a support ticket open for nine months, he says now response times are down to an average of about five days, with most responses coming within 24 to 48 hours. Meanwhile, others we spoke to who had previously struggled with Sony’s communication, like Whitethorn Digital CEO Matthew White, says that the issue has improved across the board.
“It's always slow dealing with big major companies but it definitely feels more fluid and natural now,” he says.
The same anonymous self-published indie developer I spoke to for the original piece also affirmed faster communication, adding that Sony had also been including more resources and links in its emails since the initial complaints. And Neon Doctrine co-founder Iain Garner, who wrote the initial Twitter thread that sparked the July discussion, told me that Neon Doctrine’s recent release, Lamentum, had been featured prominently on PlayStation’s YouTube channel when it was launched in August.
While communication seems to have been a relatively quick fix in many respects, Logan notes that making its processes more transparent is very complex in and of itself. However, he says that fixing the communication problem has already helped make internal processes less opaque, and he believes Sony has been in the process of simplifying systems for a while now. For instance, Logan says that Sony has spent the last two years transitioning to a more streamlined process for making game pages. “We’re hopeful that’s a sign of internal efforts to do the same across the board.”
On the discoverability front, change is a bit slower, but there’s still movement. Logan mentioned a new fund that Sony has rolled out recently that helps indie developers get their games to PlayStation by financing porting costs. He described the terms as “very friendly” and only required an announcement of the game’s release on the platform and release parity with any other platforms.
And Logan, White, and Those Awesome Guys project manager Cristian Botea all say they had been invited to more sales recently. That said, both Logan and White add that it’s still frustrating to have to be invited to discount their games by Sony, rather than having the option themselves at any time like they can on other platforms. For example, Logan mentioned that Akupara recently held a 5th anniversary sale across several platforms, and while they “would have loved” to also discount their games on PlayStation, they were unable to do so.
White, however, points out another small change that his company anticipates “will make a huge visibility difference.” It’s the addition of a New Release section on the PS5’s PS Store, which ensures that any new release, regardless of size, gets at least a little bit of time in the sun when it first comes out.
He also praises the “Indies” tab on the store, which has been around for a while now.Garner, however, has been less pleased with that feature. “[I]t features the usual suspects, and there's still no way for a game to prove itself; it has to rely on Sony staff to advocate.”
Overall, the indies we spoke to six months ago seem more positive about their relationships with PlayStation going forward. White says that the public criticism “seems to have put a fire under somebody,” adding that while there had been worry from some about retribution from the platform holder following the complaints, Sony has taken the criticism gracefully.
“I think we were clearly not like, ‘PlayStation sucks.’ Because none of us think that. We want their ecosystem to succeed and to do that we all have to succeed too.”
Others such as Garner are less optimistic about the future of indies on PlayStation — though Garner reiterates that the situation isn’t much better on other consoles. “Xbox is a little more open-handed with promotion and Switch provides you with a spot in a list, so both are a bit better than Sony. But in a world where Steam exists they are all being very silly, in my opinion.”
He says games like Neon Doctrine-published Legend of Tianding will “never be able to blow up on consoles” in the way they can on Steam due to Steam’s algorithms. Garner can market and build a game’s community, he says, and then when Steam’s algorithm notices interest, it will promote the game accordingly.
“I hope all the platforms can figure out a way to surface promising games that doesn't rely on gatekeeper nonsense,” he concludes. “If I have a good game that the data shows people like, why do I need to beg an account manager for a feature?”
Similarly, the anonymous indie developer we spoke to feels the changes are good moves in the short term, but also points out Sony’s history of supporting indie developers when it doesn’t have a huge slate of first-party titles on a new console, and then abandoning them once its first-party potential is realized. And, like Garner, he sees the problem as much bigger than Sony.
“I think it is important to keep indies and the way they are often treated by gamers and big companies in the light for discussion,” they say. “We as an industry can’t let this be a one time every four to five months conversation until something bad happens again. While this is a small step forward by PlayStation, we still, as an industry, have a long way to go before things are ‘right’ with how indies are treated compared to the big games.”
Sony declined IGN’s request for comment.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.